Musicality in the Old Timer world is an enormous part of why they danced the way they did. It’s a topic I’m infatuated with, and these conclusions may not last long as I keep thinking, or as I discuss this topic with others. But I hope you will find something interesting or inspiring in them. In our last installment, music began to enter into our equation when we mentioned how different a night of dancing would have been to a dancer who would have heard the same style of swing dance music played almost every night of a year. For this installment, we dive a lot deeper into the Old Timer dancers and how music effected their dancing.
The Only Count I know is Basie
Imagine you’re a dancer in the 1930s. Dancing for you means going out at several nights a week, and every night to a different big band, each one using different arrangements. When the leader announces he’s going to play “Flying Home,” you don’t know anything about how the song is going to sound except that the melody will roughly go “Bad-da-daaa, da-da-dadadum…Bad-da-daaa, da-da-dadadum…etc.”
Any of the intricate stuff in this night’s arrangement, or the improvised notes a soloist adds to the music make listening to it enjoyable and rewarding, but the chances of you as a dancer being able to change your dancing specifically to all those tiny sections as they fly by your ears are slim, especially because they would take such mental effort and skill that it’d probably be too mentally frustrating to even try it. The result–you’d spend more time dancing musically to the overall phrasing or big-picture melody, the overall flow of the music. It’s the “flying home” melody, after all. And if you don’t get it the first few times, they’ll repeat it. Sure, the arranger might switch it up a bit, tweak it a little, but you can work with that a lot easier than trying to be incredibly musical on every small thing that passes by. You can hit things in the small part of the music, but it’s through subtle, small changes in your overall movements–things that are easier to manipulate in the moment.
Now, put yourself in your modern dance shoes. When you go out dancing, you will hear the Fat’s Waller recording of “All that meat and no potatoes,” which you have heard fifty seven times this year alone. (For me, that’s fine; it’s a good song.) You know every note of that song, sub consciously if not consciously. When you dance to it, you will probably be able to hit and emphasize all the minor musical intricacies very well.
Now, here’s where it gets strange: When you suddenly hear a song you don’t know, you might still try to dance to the musical intricacies in it. If the song isn’t full of obvious swing music cliches that will make that easy, you will have a rough flow, or make some mistakes and end up looking really un-musical, and walk away from the dance not satisfied with the musicality in your dance.
You have become a micro-musicality dancer. You have trained your musicality muscles to mainly focus on the small stuff, perhaps because you have equated “musicality” to mean “being able to dance to a song’s musical changes very intricately.” If you are a follow, this is not a problem, but a strength–it’s the only way for you to play a major roll in musicality, since the leader interprets all the bigger movements (More on this later.) If you’re a leader and this describes you, then you have forgotten how to take pleasure and satisfaction in your overall “big-picture” musicality. This is a very large difference between the old time dancer and the new.
I began thinking about this topic after talking to Nick Williams and David Rehm, who had the topic as a part of a musicality class they put on together. They told me how they had noticed the old time dancers phrased* for their musicality, whereas a lot of new dancers seem to put more emphasis on what we call micro-musicality; the minute musical stuff. They deserve credit for planting the seed that began my own explorations into old-timer musicality. The more I thought about it, the more obvious sense it made, and the more I could formulate why it was that way for an old timer dancer. This was when I composed the opening paragraph, a little schpeel I give in classes on musicality. This musicality is a very important aspect to why classic dancing looks the way it does.
For instance, look at Hellzapoppin, which was originally choreographed to “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” but because it was danced to overall phrases, fits nicely into other songs. Look at the California, a piece of choreography that is universal to almost any AABA song. Look at Al Minns dancing to Jumpin at the Woodside at 1:15 in this clip. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvegobsHOVE&feature=PlayList&p=0F1CC38A3FB68C27&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=21). Or the Old Timers at Bobby McGees. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3OC6CuuUzg).
Since the old timer did most of their social dancing to live music, and thus their musicality was refined to live music, I think an old time dancer evolves their movements roughly in proportion to the importance of things in the music. Overall pulse and the way they step is determined by the songs feeling and mood. The songs melody and phrasing commands their big movements, like turns and patterns. The small stuff in the music gets a proportionately small amount of attention.
I’m not suggesting that modern dancers should give up their micro-musicality–it’s a great tool, show’s great skill, and makes it fun to dance to certain songs repeatedly; it’s a natural product of the DJ dance world. In a way, it’s something important we have contributed to the dance, like advanced frame and comfortable lead/follow skills. But I do think we should (1) remember phrasing is an important, powerful, and subtle musicality skill, and that (2) we need to always keep our micro-musicality in proportion, lest it dominate our dancing.
Where micro-musicality probably did come into play with old timers was jazz tropes–Swing music can be pretty predictable, and so I think a lot of micro-musicality evolved out of those predictable jazz moments. For instance, we all know that if we hear “Shave and a haircut,” we can almost guarantee a “TWO BITS!” will follow. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers make constant use of the swing tropes in “Follow the Fleet,” where the bugle call rag trumpet always prompts them to tap-out the final part, no matter what they’re doing at the time. Jazz tropes were so common that band leaders like Artie Shaw began setting up Jazz tropes only to twist their endings to psych-out listeners (In Artie’s case, often specifically to piss off dancers, whom he despised).**
For leaders, I think this is why old timer’s tend to have a few fancy moves to bust out when people are watching, but otherwise dance a whole bunch of basic movements that they alter slightly with footwork or feel. In most of the social dancing we have, like Bobby McGees, or even the Spirit Moves jams, or even Frankie Manning, a master of innovative moves (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e00F7OimG6U), we see leaders dominantly keeping to basic moves and playing within those moves.
Here’s the great news, thanks to in-depth thinking and research done on musicality by my partner and a classically-trained musician, Kate Hedin: Micro-musicality has liberated the swing dance follower. Since they have almost no control over the lead moves of the dance, and more-or-less have to match their partners for pulse and flow, followers in history have not had a chance to do much more than generic “this is the mood of the song” musicality and throwing in small, odd stylings–there is very little instances of follower-specific musicality in old timer footage. But while a follower has no control over the lead moves, she can hit the small stuff. Great modern day followers are capable of expressing what they feel to the music very specifically.
The way the old timers thought of phrasing points to a broader point of how they experienced music differently than we tend to. Norma Miller used to say, famously “The only count I know is Basie.”
The Count Basie pun is easy to say (and nod your head at, soulfully and knowingly) but hard for some dancers, especially new ones or musically trained ones, to fully understand right away. It’s incredibly common for someone in a beginner class to ask “Why is a turn 6-counts–doesn’t that mess things up, musically?”*** What Norma means, to be very technical about it, is that the original dancers had no training in counts, and didn’t assume any rules about moves taking 4 or 8 counts to do so that they fit perfectly into the structure of swing music. (Besides, anyone who sees strict 8-count dancing can see how repetitive and predictable it looks after a few moments, something you don’t want swing dancing to look or feel like).
Today, we summarize it by saying the original dancers did a lot of 8-count moves, because they are musical, but when it got down to it, only really cared about 2-count chunks, or up-beats and down beats. Those two-beat chunks are the basic Legos of swing music, and a dancer just puts those Legos together. That’s why you can break almost all moves easily into 2-beat chunks. (For instance, a side pass– a rock-step two-beat chunk, a triple step two-beat chunk, and another triple step two-beat chunk.)
The pros to not concerning yourself with counts is that as a dancer, you can spend more time paying attention to the music, and allowing your movements to be driven by it naturally rather than specific dance steps set to pre-planned times. The cons to not thinking about counts is the simple fact that understanding counts are a great way to learn dance and a great way to control and hone rhythm and keep it from getting messy, which a lot of dancers who don’t pay attention to counts have problems with.
*–I’d like to explain why I have chosen to use the word “phrasing.” The old timers (for the most part) didn’t think of their music in technical terms, and phrasing is most definitely a technical word, so in that sense, it doesn’t seem like it’s the perfect choice. But as a term, a “phrase” of jazz music describes nicely the small musical stories that are told in a swing song. It describes the build-up and climax of a melody which are precisely the parts of music a good dancer would have been paying attention to. It is for this reason that I think “phrasing” is perhaps the best one-word way of describing their sense of big-picture musicality.
But, to be more specific, the big picture parts of the music that would have been the priority of the old timers also include the mood of the music (energetic phrases and drum solos compared to mellow phrases and piano solos) and the melodic narrative as a whole. If at any point in this discussion I get too white, just let me know.
**–Artie Shaw was an infamous grouch. Among one of the many things he disliked was dancers, whom he thought would dance to “a windshield wiper” as long as it had a steady beat. It is apparently because of this dislike that his soloist would break the form of jazz tropes, and his drummers would often hit odd beats to accentuate the music. Perhaps to Artie’s corpse’s chagrin, the result was a group of songs that became a great tool for swing choreographers like Kevin and Carla in the early 2000s, who found Artie’s songs so interesting that they inspired original and interesting choreography.
So, imagine Artie Shaw being asked to make a “soundie,” the 1930s equivalent of a music video. Many of them had dancing as part of their production, but Artie Shaw refused having dancers being filmed while his musicians were playing and should get all the attention. But, Artie Shaw was a favorite dance band of the era, and its understandable the producers would want to market to that audience. In the soundie for ” Lady Be Good,” the producers found their loophole: by filming collegiate shag dancers separately on a different sound stage on a different day, they faded the dancing shots in and out over the video for the band.
***– My own answer for why a turn can take 6-beats: It’s the perfect amount of time for one turn to take. Four counts is too fast for every turn. Eight counts is too long. Six is just right.
This is the fourth part of an essay where I discuss the world of the original swing-era dancer; a person that, in many ways, was probably not like you and me. Also, I work very hard on the thoughts and words put into these essays. If you mention these ideas to others, please throw in a reference and/or send them to this website.